Water puppetry is a long-standing traditional culture with Vietnamese people, especially in the Northern Midlands and Plains.
What is a water puppet?
Water puppetry is the art of performing with puppets on the water, magically combining the two elements: puppet and water. The stage of the water puppet is the ponds and lakes of the rural villages. The stage is the grass around, very convenient for people to enjoy the show.
On the water is a two-story temple building, the upper floor is used to worship and the lower floor is the backstage with blinds. Unlike other types of performance, water puppet artists do not appear on stage. They stay in the water, hiding behind bamboo blinds, controlling puppets with a complex rod and wire system, requiring technical and sophisticated art.
The puppets are made of wood, usually, fig wood, because the fig wood is light, floats on water. The puppets do not exceed 50cm high and exquisitely carved. They are splendidly painted with lacquer so they will not discolor when exposed to water and impervious to water. Each puppet is a sculpture of artisans. They have to study the script, sketch on paper a puppet image with enough nature, beauty and physique, costumes suitable for the character, then they will start of carving on wood. Fig wood should be aged between 4 and 5 years to be suitable because if the wood is too young, it will easily rot. Due to the water damage, the puppets could only use as many as 100 shows. Images of puppets are often people, familiar animals of Vietnamese life such as farmers, anglers, fish, frogs, clones, turtles …
History of the water puppet show
Water puppet show, a unique Vietnamese folk art, was conceived before the Ly dynasty in the Red River Delta. Under the Ly dynasty, this art form became sophisticated and from there until now. There are documents that identify in 1121 as a landmark where water puppetry became a popular art. It is Sung Thien Dien Linh stone stele (Choi Pagoda, Duy Tien, Nam Ha), recording the water puppet performance as an artistic ritual to celebrate the new age of the kings. Currently, in front of Thay Pagoda (Sai Son, Quoc Oai, Ha Tay), on Long Tri Lake, there is an almost intact relic of a water puppet stage built in the Le Dynasty.
Water puppet show in Vietnam today
In India and Southeast Asian countries, there is only the hand puppet; rod puppet; and string puppet. Water puppet shows are only found in Vietnam.
In 1992, Thang Long Puppet Theater restored 17 water puppets to revitalize water puppets nationwide including: Bật cờ; Chú Tễu; Múa rồng; Em bé chăn trâu; Cày cấy; Cậu ếch; Bắt vịt; Đánh cá; Vinh quy bái tổ; Múa sư tử; Múa phượng; Lê Lợi hoàn gươm; Nhi đồng vui chơi; Đua thuyền; Múa lân; Múa tiên; Tứ linh.
Currently, there are 6 professional puppet art troupes in central Vietnam, Hanoi, Hai Phong, Ho Chi Minh City, Dak Lak, and Quang Tri province. There are also dozens of water puppet villages in many localities of the Red River Delta.
Over the years, many Vietnamese water puppet troupes have participated in several international puppet festivals that have won many high awards and have attracted the attention of audiences from many countries. With the efforts of Vietnam’s water puppet industry, this art is being protected and developed to deserve its stature in the national cultural heritage.